Where We Be
The Chinese seem to have a knack for making exercise fun
Tian-Tan Park -- Beijing, China
Tian-Tan Park is a popular park in southeastern
Beijing. Located near the Temple of Heaven, it
has wide walkways and is surrounded by pine
woods. On the morning we arrive, the weather
is perfect and people are out in droves.

If you want to see the real China on display,
parks are the place to go. Men and women
perform tai chi, dance the tango, and do slow-
motion sword exercises with real swords.
Women perform rhythmic gymnastics with long
colorful ribbons they flamboyantly fling out in
front of them or twirl around their heads.
Teenagers play hacky-sack in groups of four or
five with a weighted, feathered disk. Young and
old alike participate in a relatively new form of
exercise called tai chi ball in which you toss a
ball into the air, catch it on your paddle, and
send it into the air again, all the while moving in
synch with the tai chi instructor and the other
participants. Robin and I give it a go and quickly
discover it’s nearly impossible.

Strolling down a long covered corridor, we see
convivial groups of men and women playing
traditional Chinese music, singing in chorus,
chanting, or listening to Chinese opera. A man
playing a two-stringed vertical “fiddle” called
erhu is nearly drowned out by the amateur
opera singers twenty paces away. The
cacaphony of sounds and sights is amazing.

Men concentrate deeply as they play Chinese
chess. For every two men playing, six or seven
gather around watching their progress. Nearby,
a woman practices calligraphy on the cement
with water from a bucket. She uses what looks
like a cross between a wet mop and an
oversized paintbrush to draw the figures.

What we love most is that these folks aren’t
doing any of this for us. This is what they do to
entertain themselves on their own time. There
seems to be little sense of shyness about
exercising, singing, or performing in public.
Anyone can join a group activity -- even us --
and be welcomed with a smile.
Degree of difficulty: Impossible!
This two-stringed vertical fiddle is called an erhu -- it makes a distinctly Chinese sound
Quite different from the chess we know
Men and women perform slow-motion sword exercises with real swords
Rhythmic gymnastics makes for a colorful display
Men huddle over a hard-fought game of Chinese chess
This woman stands out in a crowd! She's demonstrating some form of crocheting.
Tai chi ball requires you to toss a ball into the air, catch it on your paddle, and send it into the air again, all while performing tai chi moves at the same time
Card games are a popular pastime
Bus Chat #2:
On Unsafe Driving and Bedroom Invites
During the ride to Tian-Tan Park and the Temple
of Heaven, rush-hour traffic is bad and the
drive takes longer than usual, but our Beijing
guide, Wen, keeps things interesting. She tells
us China has more than 100,000 vehicle
fatalities per year -- the highest per-car fatality
rate of any nation in the world. In part this is
due to most drivers’ lack of experience behind
the wheel. The SARS epidemic also caused
many people to purchase their first car in order
to avoid public transportation. Another reason
for all the vehicle-related fatalities is the mix of
autos, bikes, and pedestrians that share the
roads. There are 200 vehicle-related deaths per
month in Beijing alone, most involving bicycles.

Wen points out all the construction cranes --
the national bird of China, she says jokingly.  
For a long time the cranes were concentrated
primarily in Shanghai, but with the 2008
Olympics fast approaching, many are now in
Beijing. Since we're passing endless rows of
high-rise apartment buildings, she tells us
about the differences between some of the
older buildings and the newer ones. “The old
apartments generally have about 450 square
feet of living space total. There is no living
room and sometimes no private bathroom. If
you bring guests to your apartment, you take
them straight to your bedroom because the bed
is the only place to sit.”

Modern apartments, by comparison, have about
1000 square feet of living space, a living room,
private bathroom, and possibly even central air
conditioning. Of course they are a lot more
expensive to rent. We learn that housing is no
longer provided by the government. Everyone
has to pay their own rent. This is a big change
for people which has occurred in the last ten
years. Health care is also no longer provided by
the government, something that weighs heavily
on many Chinese.